Athens Area Chamber of Commerce makes global connection

By Emily Curl

While located in opposite sides of the globe, Athens-Clarke County and the City of Greater Geelong in Victoria, Australia have much more in common than one would suspect.

In hopes to improve downtown development and bring additional business to Athens, officials are researching and discussing new ways to help Athens’ businesses develop and succeed.

On February 8th, officials from the two cities met to discuss mutual interests in opportunities for economic development and signed a “Memorandum of Understanding to acknowledge the strategic relationship between the two cities,” as stated on the Athens-Clarke County website. Read the rest of this entry »

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Athens drivers may start paying for ignoring one safety law

By Emily Curl

A school bus is stopped on Barnett Shoals road, dropping students at the entrance of an apartment complex.

Traffic behind the bus is stopped.

But eight of the nine cars traveling in the opposite direction do not stop.

Those drivers who did not stop violated Georgia’s law regarding school bus safety.

The law confuses many motorists, officials acknowledge, but understanding and obeying the law is the only way to avoid a $300 ticket.

Following in the steps of many other school districts across the U.S., Athens’s motorists will start paying a fine for ignoring school bus stop signals beginning this week.

Cobb County’s school district has already implemented this same camera system on their school busses, and according to the transportation director for the school district, Rick Gresham, bus drivers have already seen a decrease in violations.

Many other states, such as Connecticut, Maryland, Washington, and Louisiana, have also begun installing these mounted traffic cameras onto school buses to deter motorists from speeding past stopped buses.

This past January, five Clarke County School District buses were equipped with external cameras in hopes to enforce Georgia’s state law requiring motorists to stop for school buses when they drop passengers off.

These cameras were finally put into action on Monday after several weeks of test runs.

Ernie Stedman is an employee of American Traffic Solution and the installer of the camera systems on Clarke County school buses.

When asked about the cameras, Stedman said “There are 6 cameras on each bus. The system (a small computer) knows when the stop arm is extended, and can visually detect when a vehicle passes. It then records a video of the vehicle and its tag, and sends the video up to the server for review and citation issuance. Everything on the bus [system] is automated requiring no driver involvement.”

In the past, it was the responsibility of Clarke County bus drivers to recognize a car passing the stopped bus and up to them to make note of the tag number.

This proved almost impossible for any busy bus driver.

As stated by the American Traffic Solutions website “CrossingGuard® is a completely automated enforcement system that requires no bus driver involvement. High-resolution cameras installed on the exterior of the bus automatically capture images and video of violating vehicles as they illegally pass the stop arm. In addition to capturing video, the system automatically embeds a data bar which includes GPS coordinates, date and time of the violation, and other relevant violation information used to create a comprehensive evidence package.”

This could be bad news for drivers who do not know the extent of the law.

“It will reduce violations in two ways,” Stedman added. ” The cameras themselves are a deterrent for anyone thinking of passing when the arm is out. The second way is by modifying driver behavior; if they do go around, they get a $300 citation.  I think they will be very careful not to repeat that offense.”

The Georgia law states “when [a] school bus stops for passengers, all traffic from both directions must stop.”

All motorists are expected to obey this law, unless there is a physical barrier as a median, then only traffic following the bus must stop.

Barnett Shoals Road is a four lane road with a turning lane running throughout the middle of the road.

There is no physical barrier as a median, meaning motorists traveling in the opposite direction are expected to stop for the school bus along with the traffic following the bus.

This law is confusing to many motorists, but it is important for all drivers to know and understand the law to avoid getting a ticket.

“I think it is confusing to a lot of drivers,” Emily Jolly said when asked about Georgia’s law. “I know I have to stop on a two lane road, but sometimes when I’m traveling on a larger road I don’t even notice the bus stopped on the opposite side.”

This same idea is common for many Athens drivers.

“I guess it’s just because I never really see other cars stopping, I didn’t realize I had to stop,” T.J. Hinton answered when asked about stopping for school buses on Barnett Shoals Road.

This is exactly what the Clarke County School District is hoping the camera systems will accomplish: awareness.

Cathy Benson, Clarke County’s school district transportation director, explained that five buses are equipped with this camera system at this time, but there is a possibility of adding up to twenty buses total.

When asked how the buses were picked to have the system installed she said the buses were chosen by the roads they travel; buses that travel on busier, heavily congested roads were picked to be outfitted with the cameras first.

According to Benson, there was no cost to the school district to have the buses equipped with the cameras, and the district does not receive any revenue from violations.

Online Athens reported, “Violators face a $300 fine for their first violation, $750 for a second offense and $1,000 for a third.”

“Safety for our students is always our foremost goal,” Benson said. “However, we also want to educate and increase the awareness of the public about the laws when sharing the road with school buses.”


Downtown development brings headache and promise

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By Emily Curl

As Carley Gainous walks up Broad Street every day, she confronts the SunTrust building construction.

“There are fewer parking spaces around my lot and portions of the sidewalk are closed,” she says. ” I know it’s temporary, but it has been harder getting to and from class.”

Gainous is not the only one faced with the hassles of construction. She is an example of what pedestrians, business owners, and workers experience with downtown construction: temporary inconvenience followed by an improved downtown.

Construction is nothing new to downtown Athens, but projects taking place this year are expected to bring major disturbances and changes to downtown development.

The SunTrust building’s neighboring property redevelopment, along with the Clayton Streetscape infrastructure work, are two of the largest projects occurring simultaneously downtown. Many businesses anticipate an initial loss, but hope upon completion the new construction improves the downtown area and attracts more customers.

After interviewing pedestrians, business owners, and employees, a temporary disruption and loss is anticipated, but ultimately, once downtown construction is complete, businesses are expected to return to normal or even experience a rise in business, and pedestrians can look forward to an improved downtown.

While both projects promise limited disturbances, businesses and pedestrians are already beginning to feel an impact. The Clayton Street infrastructure project is expected to last until mid 2015 according to SPLOST Project Manager Derek Doster. And according to reports on OnlineAthens.com, the multiuse development in progress beside the SunTrust building is not expected to be complete until Summer 2015, leaving businesses and pedestrians to deal with the construction for another year.

This is not the first time large-scale construction has appeared downtown. After fire damage in 2009, the Georgia Theatre began a major reconstruction project. Ophelia Culpepper, an employee of Horton’s Drug Store remembered the construction on the corner of West Clayton and North Lumpkin Streets.

“It was pretty noisy, but if anything, I think the construction helped business, especially once the construction was complete.” she said. “The construction workers came into the store often to buy snacks and drinks, but I think it would have been different if we were more of a specialty store.”

When asked about the new construction beginning on Clayton Street, Culpepper was worried that parking might be a problem, but she hopes to once again gain business from the construction workers.

While Horton’s Drug Store may not be facing a decrease in sales, many other businesses are already feeling a loss.

With jackhammers buzzing and bulldozers in action just steps away from the front door of Heery’s Too, employee Martha Easton McLemore already noticed business has been slower than usual.

“[The construction] has definitely affected the flow of customers in the store and all the heavy machinery outside seems to turn people away,” McLemore said. ” It’s really loud and a hassle, but I do think Clayton needs a facelift. I can only hope all this [construction] will be worth it.”

According to the Athens- Clarke County Downtown Streetscapes Improvements website, the infrastructure of Clayton Street is expected to be improved and upgraded. Utility, sidewalk, and exterior improvements are all expected to bring multiple benefits to businesses and pedestrians. The benefits  include water system and street light improvements, wider sidewalks, and improved crosswalks.

Work will also be done in sections in hopes to minimize disturbances and so the entire street will not be affected at once, according to Doster. He expects large traffic or parking problems to be very limited.

According to the website of the construction company in charge of the SunTrust building redevelopment, Juneau Construction Company, “the project will consist of more than 300,000 square feet of a mix of retail, apartment, and restaurant space. Five stories of apartments totaling 266 units and 165,000 square feet will sit above one level of retail totaling more than 40,000 square feet and below grade parking that will consist of 266 parking spaces.”

Another downtown business affected by the construction is Private Gallery, an apparel store located on Clayton Street. When asked about the construction, employee Jordan Garner was not happy about the noise surrounding the work but agreed that Clayton Street needed street and sidewalk improvements.

“Once this is all done, I think we will have more customers stopping by the store and all other stores on Clayton in general,” Garner said.

When asked about the SunTrust building redevelopment Garner added “When people live downtown they are more likely to shop downtown as well. I hope we will gain some more customers as people move towards downtown.”

The new apartments, along with street improvements, also have Cat Bobon, owner of Cillies Clothing, hopeful for the future of her business.

“It’s a pain now since the construction is taking up parking spaces, but I know it will eventually be for the best. I haven’t had many customers today, but hopefully that changes soon,” Bobon said.

Cillies Clothing is a vintage store located on Clayton Street, and while the business profits on customers buying clothing and accessories from the store, they also count on customers to sell the store their gently used apparel.

Although this is the largest construction to take place recently in downtown Athens, if businesses and pedestrians can cooperate with the construction, they will ultimately benefit. While businesses may be beginning to experience a loss now, that loss is seen as temporary and business owners can expect to return to normal or better after construction completion.

“More people living downtown just means more opportunities [for the business] to buy and sell, which is always a good thing,” Bobon says. “And once the street is in better shape, even more people will want to come shop on Clayton.”